If every school on earth assembled a band of its all-time best musicians, the smart money in a cutting contest would be on Joseph A. Craig Elementary. Craig moved into this building when it opened in 1927, following a years-long dispute about where its students—all of them Black—would be allowed to study. The neighborhood in those days was fairly diverse, and some white people feared the school would anchor a Black community here, which, in fact, it did. As segregation intensified in the mid-1900s, the school—nicknamed Craig University—became a Treme institution.
In the 1930s the school offered vocal music classes and had a small student band. There was no budget for instruments, but Craig parents chipped in, and some children were able to bring theirs from home. Students included Earl Palmer, the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer; Yvonne Busch, who’d become a legendary music teacher; Edgar “Dooky” Chase, soon to be a bandleader and restaurateur; Benny Powell, who’d be a trombone master in Count Basie’s big band; and Warren Bell, Sr., who’d play saxophone with the likes of Cab Calloway and Ray Charles.
Brass band icon “Uncle” Lionel Batiste grew up across the street from Craig in the 30s and 40s. When the school band rehearsed on the third floor with the windows open, Batiste would play along on his front steps. The band director’s sister took notice and recruited him to play snare drum. Drummer Benny Jones, Sr. attended Craig a little later; he and Batiste became extended family and longtime collaborators, from the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band in the 70s to the Treme Brass Band beginning in the 90s.
In the postwar years Craig helped groom some of the city’s finest drummers, including Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, who played on countless classic R&B records, and John Boudreaux, who played on plenty himself. Other alumni of the rhythm and blues era were trumpeter Warren “Porgy” Jones, a local favorite who toured with stars like Art Blakey to Jerry “The Iceman” Butler; James Rivers, whose saxophone can be heard on the classics “Carnival Time” and “Sea Cruise,” and is also New Orleans’ best-known bagpiper; Sam Henry, a music teacher and organ man at the helm of Sam and the Soul Machine; and Emile Hall, another educator and saxophonist who served as Irma Thomas’ bandleader.
The band room at Craig became part of a cultural corridor in Treme including Charbonnet Funeral Home, St. Augustine Catholic Church, and a number of neighborhood barrooms and music venues, like Joe’s Cozy Corner. Music was integral to daily life in the neighborhood, and a vital part of its rituals. Jazz funerals regularly passed Craig on their way down St. Philip Street, perking up the ears of students including clarinetist Joseph Torregano. He recalled watching three brass bands play in the procession for clarinet hero Alphonse Picou. (Another clarinetist, Doreen Ketchens, found inspiration elsewhere: she signed up for the Craig band to avoid a pop quiz.)
Trumpeter and bandleader Gregg Stafford lived nearby in 1985 when he started his teaching career at Craig. By then the neighborhood was nearly entirely Black. “[B]y me playing [trumpet] in all the parades and funerals, everybody knew me in the community,” Stafford recalled. “We were like family in that school.” He taught neighborhood kids like trombonist Corey Henry and drummer Derrick Tabb who became stalwarts of a new generation of brass bands in the 90s.
Craig became a charter school after Hurricane Katrina, to the chagrin of civil rights activist Jerome Smith, who ran summer camps here with his Tambourine and Fan organization. The change, along with the gentrification of Treme, threatened the bond between the school and the neighborhood. When Smith was a student at Craig in the 40s, the curriculum included drum lessons that helped him overcome a speech impediment. Now that the school lacks a full-time music teacher Smith makes a point to play jazz for the students he teaches at the Treme Center, on the spot where Uncle Lionel grew up listening to the Craig band rehearse.
Author and educator Al Kennedy discusses music education in New Orleans, including the program at Craig Elementary.